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Travel

All over Bangkok,every noodle dishtells a savory story

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob McKeown
Globe Correspondent / April 20, 2005

BANGKOK -- ''Yaak kin guay tiaw!"

This is a cry heard all over Thailand and it is often punctuated with a wide-eyed smile. The literal translation: ''I want to eat noodles." Day to day, the phrase pops up like an old friend demanding to be fed. If ''yaak kin guay tiaw" is a secondary Thai anthem, then chasing noodles is a national pastime.

I've traveled in Southeast Asia for seven years now, and noodles are as ubiquitous as rice, whether the communities are migrant Indian or native Cambodian, Buddhist or Muslim. Historically, noodles arrived in Thailand from China during the spice trading era, but they have been wholly transformed into what locals like to call ''things Thai." While I love the herbal zing of Vietnamese pho or the coconut milk and lush spunk of Malaysian laksa, there is no place I would rather chase noodles than in Thailand and no better place to do so than in Bangkok. Who eats them, when they are cooked, how they are seasoned -- every noodle dish is a story unto itself.

I eat pad thai only about twice a year but find myself doing so at Or Tor Kor. It's an open-air produce and cooked foods market with concrete flooring, neon strip lights, and an aluminum roof. The vendor I frequent sets up across from a stand selling fresh sugar cane, orange, and green guava juices. She has a round, sweet face that tightens when she flips the noodles about on an iron griddle.

I order mine with plump oysters and mussels from Ranong and always stand and watch as she folds them together with dried shrimp, soy, and glass noodles. The whole becomes stained a lovely shade of blush pink. Egg lovers should ask to have the noodles wrapped in a delicate sheath of omelet (say ''haw khai" to accomplish this). The result is a plump, yellow package whose sides burst with strands of noodles and green shards of spring onions. Remember to sprinkle red chile and squeeze lime and fish sauce to taste. The Thai way is very much about your ways and whims.

Iconic as it is searing hot, tom yum soup is a chameleon of a dish. In the dry climate of Esarn, the country's northeast section, where rice is farmed and livestock reared, it's all rough-and-tumble chile heat, whereas in the central regions the taste is rich with coconut milk and tamarind. But the noodle form is probably eaten with equal frequency; simply say ''guay tieo tom yum."

In an old Thai-Chinese neighborhood called Suan Phlu, there is a lean-to of aluminum tables and red, yellow, and blue umbrellas. A pretty, raven-haired woman and her husband (she cooks, he clears) serve a bowl of tom yum soup that is as clear as water yet delivers the taste of 10 ordinary servings. The broth sings with kaffir lime, lemongrass, and sweet wafts of garlic. It burns the lips and awakens the body. Yet I always remain fully focused on the gaggle of tofu-fish dumplings, tender pork, bean sprouts, and fried fish balls that rest in the bowl. The soup is addictive enough to be eaten daily without getting bored.

In Thailand, planning days around noodle dishes is not uncommon. Most people know what vendor does what dish, at what time, and where. At 11 a.m., I always think about a shop near Silom Road, across from an ornate Hindu temple where the heavy scent of Indian incense hangs in the air. One enters on the ground floor, peruses the metal vats of curries, then trundles upstairs to order.

They serve a famous southern Thai dish called khanom jin. It's the ultimate mix-and-match experience. Every diner gets a shallow bowl of shock-white rice noodles made by hand. One then chooses curries to be poured over or served on the side, such as the sour pungency of kaeng tai pla (bamboo shoots, fish, and pea eggplants) or the silky smooth and aromatic nam yaa plaa (Indian-style curry with fish and coconut milk). Bowls overflowing with herbs, chopped green beans, pickled vegetables, raw eggplant, marinated cucumber, and much more run down the center of every table. Diners spoon what they like onto their noodles, add curry, and eat until sated. This is one of the only times Thais eat curry without rice. I always wonder if that's why they eat khanom jin so vigorously.

Taxi drivers and construction workers often stop midafternoon for a quick stir-fry. Basic as could be but inversely hard to make well is a plate of rice noodles with soy, chile, a touch of sugar, strips of egg, morning glory stalks, and chicken or pork wedges called pad si-ew. Many in Bangkok make the trek to a road called Nang Linchi where, across from the 7-Eleven near Soi 8, and under enormous posters of Jesus, an older cook and his awed assistants toil over a medieval-looking wok. The cook's secrets are an athletic sense of balance and his cooking source: wood burning at very high heat. His noodles taste subtly of smoke and have a delightful chewiness that's offset by the crunch of vegetables and the tender touch of eggs. Who needs Western fast food when this is available?

But I prefer eating after dusk. As the quick-fry vendors disappear and the tropical light stains the sky shades of tangerine and baby pink, more elaborate stands pop up near busy intersections. Convent Road is a funny collision of the trendy and the dodgy, with modeling agencies, ''sexy" cabaret shows, and bank-owned office towers nearby. They all converge at a corner stand for light blue bowls of wonton egg noodles. Hair-like strands of noodles languish in a soup that is less about its pork flavor and more about what is served to highlight it: delicate white crabmeat, pillowy wonton dumplings pinched around ground pork, and chopped water spinach. Lashed with yellow chiles in vinegar and red chile flakes, the broth outshines the neon that lights up the nearby red-light district.

After eating, some diners head home. Others go out to party. And, this being Thailand, still others no doubt grab a coffee at one of the many nearby cafes and stick around for the night market. This being Bangkok, another bowl of noodles is no doubt not that far off.

Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.

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